NPR aired a story last year about a boarding school in Massachusetts that decided to rebuild its library as a fully digital environment. That is, Cushing Academy no longer has any physical books. The stacks are gone, and students instead have access to millions of digital books via the school’s circulating Kindles. Although many institutions, including school and public libraries, have begun to adopt eBooks as a component of their collections, Cushing Academy is one of the most extreme examples of a library literally doing away with their stacks.
The stated mission of the American Library Association (ALA) is “To provide leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.” The introduction of eBooks to libraries may be interpreted as an “enhancement,” and, indeed, few librarians reject the notion that eBooks provide benefits to many collections by supplementing the capacities of print materials. However, the story of Cushing Academy highlights some of the complexities of taking new technologies to the extreme.
Camila Alire, past President of the ALA, said of Cushing Academy’s drastic renovation, “Students learn differently, and some students will take to digital resources and information technology like a duck takes to water…And then there are other students who learn by turning the pages, by handling the materials” (Antolini, 2009). Alire makes an important point: although part of the library’s responsibility is to stay abreast of new technologies, libraries also function to meet the learning and information needs of diverse users. If an organization gets rid of an entire range of materials in favor of another, it runs the risk of ignoring the needs of a faction of the user population.
In LIS programs we like to turn to S.R. Ranganathan to simplify the general mission of libraries because his “Five Laws of Library Science” are simple yet powerful. “Every reader his book” may be the one that relates most explicitly to the discussion about eBooks (Gorman, 1998, p. 21). A component of the mission of all information organizations is to connect every user with the best information for him or her. For some users, an eBook may be the best format, while others may want to view information via microfiche. In any case, it is the responsibility of the information organization to meet each user’s individual needs. This is not to say that every information package must be available in every possible format, but what we sometimes lose sight of is the fact that different users learn in different ways. This is what Camile Alire speaks to in her comments about Cushing Academy.
In general, it is an interesting time to be an information professional and try to navigate the murky waters of new technologies. It’s important for us to remain aligned with the ALA’s mission of enhancement and improvement, and it is of course vital that libraries of all kinds strive to remain relevant. However, it’s also important that we look critically at our options and keep all users in mind when we acquire new technologies.
Antolini, Tina. (November 9, 2009.) Digital school library leaves book stacks behind. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120097876.
Gorman, Michael. (1998.) The five laws of library science: then and now. School Library Journal, 44:7, p. 20-3.
–Post by Allie B.